It seems like newspapers everywhere have been struggling to prevail lately, and some are stopping the presses and closing their doors. Times like these create opportunity and motivation sometimes to cross some lines that should not be crossed. Here are a couple of stories of interest, one from Washington State describing the struggles of these news organizations and what one state is doing to try to bail them out, and one from Washington, District of Columbia describing the ethical and legal morass one paper (The Washington Post), found itself in by crossing that line. –GFS
Newspapers in WA get tax break during bad times
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — As newspapers across the country struggle through a brutal economic climate, papers in Washington State are getting a tax break.
A new law that gives newspaper printers and publishers a 40 percent cut in Washington's main business tax took effect this week, providing some much-needed relief to the business after a year in which The Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its final edition and other papers suffered drastic cutbacks.
"It's not a bailout, because it's not enough money," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, the Democrat who sponsored the measure. "But it is our way of saying to the newspapers that we do believe you're incredibly important to our state and our democracy."
The Society of Professional Journalists and the National Conference of State Legislatures was not aware of any other state that has granted a similar tax break to the newspaper industry.
In Michigan, a bill that was introduced in May would exempt newspapers from paying that state's main business tax, but the bill has not yet had a hearing. And several states, including Mississippi, Idaho and Colorado, have existing sales-tax exemptions for newspapers.
The Washington tax cut, which will cost the state about $1.3 million a year, was approved despite uneasiness in the industry about newspapers relying on the government they cover for help.
But there was also recognition that these are historic times for the industry.
Newspapers across the country have resorted to layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs and other cost cutting moves to deal with a wounded business model and a recession-fueled drop in advertising.
The Post-Intelligencer was converted to an Internet-only publication with a much-reduced staff, and The Seattle Times — the only mainstream daily left in the state's largest city — has had severe financial troubles of its own and has cut 500 positions in the past year.
Gov. Chris Gregoire called the decision to stop printing the 146-year-old P-I a "huge historical loss."
Gregoire said that while the tax break won't cure all that ails newspapers, she felt the state needed to do something.
"The industry has to right itself, and government can't and won't be a part of it righting itself," she said. "But I don't want government to be part of the reason that this industry can't make it."
In May, the company that publishes The Columbian filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in an effort to resolve credit issues involving a building project.
Publisher Frank Blethen said things have improved slightly for his newspaper since earlier this year, when he testified in support of the tax break and said that "we're hanging on by our fingertips."
"We're probably hanging on by our fingers now," Blethen said. "The tangible result is with all the pressure on budgets and all the red ink right now, anything that helps dampen that means that there's going to be fewer reporters laid off, and less content reduction. It's not big enough to take a lot of pressure off, but it helps."
The News Tribune of Tacoma publisher Dave Zeeck said that the approximate $100,000 a year in savings his newspaper will see is the equivalent of keeping two reporters on staff for a year.
"We are doing everything we can to preserve news content, and this certainly helps," he said, noting that they are still paying about $150,000 in state business and occupation taxes even after the cut.
Washington state's tax cut is to the state's business and occupation tax, which is based on gross revenues instead of profit. Washington is one of just a handful of states that does not have a state income tax. The law provides newspapers the same discounted rate given to the aerospace industry, including Boeing Co., and the timber industry.
But media watchers are quick to point out that those other industries have a different relationship with the government than newspapers.
"It makes me a little nervous," said Dave Aeikens, president of the Society for Professional Journalists. "There needs to be a clear separation between the government and the watchdog role of the press. If it looks like there's any type of tie, then the public's not going to trust the press."
Publishers say that line is not in jeopardy.
"We're very good at separating our opinions from our news coverage," said Michael Shepard, publisher of the Yakima Herald-Republic. "We've been doing that for hundreds of years. It wasn't our reporters and editors who were asking for this relief."
Rufus Woods, publisher and editor of the family-owned Wenatchee World, said he didn't personally push for the tax cut because he didn't think it was enough to make a difference, and that with the state's current financial troubles, "I didn't think it was a good year to do it."
"I don't think it's up to the government to make us survive," he said. "We need to figure out how to make that happen. We're like any other business. We need to find new ways to do things."
Some Choice Words for “The Select Few”
Sunday 12 July 2009
If you want to know what really matters in Washington, don't go to Capitol Hill for one of those hearings, or pay attention to those staged White House "town meetings." They're just for show. What really happens - the serious business of Washington - happens in the shadows, out of sight, off the record. Only occasionally - and usually only because someone high up stumbles - do we get a glimpse of just how pervasive the corruption has become.
Case in point: Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post - one of the most powerful people in DC - invited top officials from the White House, the Cabinet and Congress to her home for an intimate, off-the-record dinner to discuss health care reform with some of her reporters and editors covering the story.
But CEOs and lobbyists from the health care industry were invited, too, provided they forked over $25,000 a head - or up to a quarter of a million if they want to sponsor a whole series of these cozy get-togethers. And what is the inducement offered? Nothing less, the invitation read, than "an exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will get it done."
The invitation reminds the CEO's and lobbyists that they will be buying access to "those powerful few in business and policy making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues …
"Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No." The invitation promises this private, intimate and off-the-record dinner is an extension "of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard."
Let that sink in. In this case, the "stakeholders" in health care reform do not include the rabble - the folks across the country who actually need quality health care but can't afford it. If any of them showed up at the kitchen door on the night of this little soiree, the bouncer would drop kick them beyond the Beltway.
No, before you can cross the threshold to reach "the select few who will actually get it done," you must first cross the palm of some outstretched hand. The Washington Post dinner was canceled after a copy of the invite was leaked to the web site Politico.com, by a health care lobbyist, of all people. The paper said it was a misunderstanding - the document was a draft that had been mailed out prematurely by its marketing department. There's noblesse oblige for you - blame it on the hired help.
In any case, it was enough to give us a glimpse into how things really work in Washington - a clear insight into why there is such a great disconnect between democracy and government today, between Washington and the rest of the country.
According to one poll after another, a majority of Americans not only want a public option in health care, they also think that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power over policy, that money in politics is the root of all evil, that working families and poor communities need and deserve public support if the market system fails to generate shared prosperity.
But, when the insiders in Washington have finished tearing worthy intentions apart and devouring flesh from bone, none of these reforms happen. "Oh," they say, "it's all about compromise. All in the nature of the give-and-take-negotiating of a representative democracy."
That, people, is bull - the basic nutrient of Washington's high and mighty.
It's not about compromise. It's not about what the public wants. It's about money - the golden ticket to "the select few who actually get it done."
When Congress passed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, "the select few" made sure it no longer contained the cramdown provision that would have allowed judges to readjust mortgages. The one provision that would have helped homeowners the most was removed in favor of an industry that pours hundreds of millions into political campaigns.
So, too, with a bill designed to protect us from terrorist attacks on chemical plants. With "the select few" dictating marching orders, hundreds of factories are being exempted from measures that would make them spend money to prevent the release of toxic clouds that could kill hundreds of thousands.
Everyone knows the credit ratings agencies were co-conspirators with Wall Street in the shameful wilding that brought on the financial meltdown. But when the Obama administration came up with new reforms to prevent another crisis, the credit ratings agencies were given a pass. They'd been excused by "the select few who actually get it done."
And by the time an energy bill emerged from the House of Representatives the other day, "the select few who actually get it done" had given away billions of dollars worth of emission permits and offsets. As The New York Times reported, while the legislation worked its way to the House floor, "It grew fat with compromises, carve-outs, concessions and out-and-out gifts," expanding from 648 pages to 1,400 as it spread its largesse among big oil and gas, utility companies and agribusiness.
This week, the public interest groups Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics reported that, "According to lobby disclosure reports, 34 energy companies registered in the first quarter of 2009 to lobby Congress around the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. This group of companies spent a total of $23.7 million - or $260,000 a day - lobbying members of Congress in January, February and March.
"Many of these same companies also made large contributions to the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation and held a hearing this week on the proposed 'cap and trade' system energy companies are fighting. Data shows oil and gas companies, mining companies and electric utilities combined have given more than $2 million just to the 19 members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since 2007, the start of the last full election cycle."
It's happening to health care as well. Even the pro-business magazine The Economist says America has the worst system in the developed world, controlled by executives who are not held to account and investors whose primary goal is raising share price and increasing profit - while wasting $450 billion dollars in redundant administrative costs and leaving nearly 50 million uninsured.
Enter "the select few who actually get it done." Three out of four of the big health care firms lobbying on Capitol Hill have former members of Congress or government staff members on the payroll - more than 350 of them - and they're all fighting hard to prevent a public option, at a rate in excess of $1.4 million a day.
Health care policy has become insider heaven. Even Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House health reform director, served on the boards of several major health care corporations.
President Obama has pushed hard for a public option but many fear he's wavering, and just this week his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel - the insider di tutti insiders - indicated that a public plan just might be negotiable, ready for reengineering, no doubt, by "the select few who actually get it done."
That's how it works. And it works that way because we let it. The game goes on and the insiders keep dealing themselves winning hands. Nothing will change - nothing - until the moneylenders are tossed out of the temple, the ATM's are wrested from the marble halls, and we tear down the sign they've placed on government - the one that reads, "For Sale."
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.